Annual update on Lower Owens River Project

By Deb Murphy

The Lower Owens River Project Annual Reports of years past, 2014 and 13 specifically, were long, jam-packed, border-line raucous gatherings spurred on by Ecosystem Sciences’ consultants. This year’s, held January 13 with no consultants present, — not so much.

Boating through the tules.  Photo by Frank Colver

Photo by Frank Colver

The presentations from Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Lori Dermody and Inyo County Water Department’s Bob Harrington and Aaron Steinwand, flew by in a half-hour with few questions or comments from the few attendees. The deadline for comments is January 28; the full 414-page report is available on LADWP’s website.

The goal of the project, officially begun nine years ago with the re-watering of the Owens River below the outtake at Tinnemaha, was to bring the river back to life with all the renewed vegetation and wildlife that implies. The success of the project, to date, is a subjective judgement. Basically, the Owens River has taken the regulated flows mandated by a Memorandum of Understanding and gone its own way, as water will. The vision may have been a meandering open water river accompanied by a riparian forest. But the Owens opted for a marsh environment, starting at the Islands east of the Alabama Gates and moving surely north. That was the analysis for 2013, 14 and again in 2015.

There was good news. The avian surveys indicated a “significant increase” according to Dermody, though species seeking out open water declined. Woody recruitment (aka trees) may be down, due in large part to the absence of season flows to spread tree seeds during drought years, but a reasonable number of existing fledgling trees, 57-percent, have survived. Salt Cedar eradication is going well.

The bad news: the Owens is quickly evolving from an incised channel with steep or vertical banks to an aggraded river with sediment deposits raising the riverbed and creating a broad flood plain. The report states “more than 30 miles of channel that was incised in 2000 have become graded (a balanced river) or aggraded.”

Declines in water and shore bird species, spread of tules, all the things that aren’t working for the LORP are, in part, a result of the river’s aggraded condition.

The consultants, Dr. William Platt and Mark Hill chipped in the final chapter of the Annual Report, repeating their recommendations of a more natural flow management, with reduced flows in the winter and a series of seasonal flushing flows. The recommendations also included a second River Summit and a “Goal Analysis and Solution” workshop with the MOU partners.

If the 2013-14 Annual Report sessions, covering the largest, most ambitious river restoration in history, could be described as “a bang,” this year’s was a whimper.


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